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- What Maisie Knew - 20/53 -


personage would scarce commit herself more grandly. There was moreover a hint of the duchess in the infinite point with which, as she felt, she exclaimed: "And this is what you call coming OFTEN?"

Sir Claude met her delightfully and in the same fine spirit. "My dear old man, don't make me a scene--I assure you it's what every woman I look at does. Let us have some fun--it's a lovely day: clap on something smart and come out with me; then we'll talk it over quietly."

They were on their way five minutes later to Hyde Park, and nothing that even in the good days at her mother's they had ever talked over had more of the sweetness of tranquillity than his present prompt explanations. He was at his best in such an office and with the exception of Mrs. Wix the only person she had met in her life who ever explained. With him, however, the act had an authority transcending the wisdom of woman. It all came back-- the plans that always failed, all the rewards and bribes that she was perpetually paying for in advance and perpetually out of pocket by afterwards--the whole great stress to be dealt with introduced her on each occasion afresh to the question of money. Even she herself almost knew how it would have expressed the strength of his empire to say that to shuffle away her sense of being duped he had only, from under his lovely moustache, to breathe upon it. It was somehow in the nature of plans to be expensive and in the nature of the expensive to be impossible. To be "involved" was of the essence of everybody's affairs, and also at every particular moment to be more involved than usual. This had been the case with Sir Claude's, with papa's, with mamma's, with Mrs. Beale's and with Maisie's own at the particular moment, a moment of several weeks, that had elapsed since our young lady had been re-established at her father's. There wasn't "two-and-tuppence" for anything or for any one, and that was why there had been no sequel to the classes in French literature with all the smart little girls. It was devilish awkward, didn't she see? to try, without even the limited capital mentioned, to mix her up with a remote array that glittered before her after this as the children of the rich. She was to feel henceforth as if she were flattening her nose upon the hard window-pane of the sweet-shop of knowledge. If the classes, however, that were select, and accordingly the only ones, were impossibly dear, the lectures at the institutions--at least at some of them--were directly addressed to the intelligent poor, and it therefore had to be easier still to produce on the spot the reason why she had been taken to none. This reason, Sir Claude said, was that she happened to be just going to be, though they had nothing to do with that in now directing their steps to the banks of the Serpentine. Maisie's own park, in the north, had been nearer at hand, but they rolled westward in a hansom because at the end of the sweet June days this was the direction taken by every one that any one looked at. They cultivated for an hour, on the Row and by the Drive, this opportunity for each observer to amuse and for one of them indeed, not a little hilariously, to mystify the other, and before the hour was over Maisie had elicited, in reply to her sharpest challenge, a further account of her friend's long absence.

"Why I've broken my word to you so dreadfully--promising so solemnly and then never coming? Well, my dear, that's a question that, not seeing me day after day, you must very often have put to Mrs. Beale."

"Oh yes," the child replied; "again and again."

"And what has she told you?"

"That you're as bad as you're beautiful."

"Is that what she says?"

"Those very words."

"Ah the dear old soul!" Sir Claude was much diverted, and his loud, clear laugh was all his explanation. Those were just the words Maisie had last heard him use about Mrs. Wix. She clung to his hand, which was encased in a pearl-grey glove ornamented with the thick black lines that, at her mother's, always used to strike her as connected with the way the bestitched fists of the long ladies carried, with the elbows well out, their umbrellas upside down. The mere sense of his grasp in her own covered the ground of loss just as much as the ground of gain. His presence was like an object brought so close to her face that she couldn't see round its edges. He himself, however, remained showman of the spectacle even after they had passed out of the Park and begun, under the charm of the spot and the season, to stroll in Kensington Gardens. What they had left behind them was, as he said, only a pretty bad circus, and, through prepossessing gates and over a bridge, they had come in a quarter of an hour, as he also remarked, a hundred miles from London. A great green glade was before them, and high old trees, and under the shade of these, in the fresh turf, the crooked course of a rural footpath. "It's the Forest of Arden," Sir Claude had just delightfully observed, "and I'm the banished duke, and you're--what was the young woman called?--the artless country wench. And there," he went on, "is the other girl--what's her name, Rosalind?--and (don't you know?) the fellow who was making up to her. Upon my word he IS making up to her!"

His allusion was to a couple who, side by side, at the end of the glade, were moving in the same direction as themselves. These distant figures, in their slow stroll (which kept them so close together that their heads, drooping a little forward, almost touched), presented the back of a lady who looked tall, who was evidently a very fine woman, and that of a gentleman whose left hand appeared to be passed well into her arm while his right, behind him, made jerky motions with the stick that it grasped. Maisie's fancy responded for an instant to her friend's idea that the sight was idyllic; then, stopping short, she brought out with all her clearness: "Why mercy--if it isn't mamma!"

Sir Claude paused with a stare. "Mamma? But mamma's at Brussels."

Maisie, with her eyes on the lady, wondered. "At Brussels?"

"She's gone to play a match."

"At billiards? You didn't tell me."

"Of course _I_ didn't!" Sir Claude ejaculated. "There's plenty I don't tell you. She went on Wednesday."

The couple had added to their distance, but Maisie's eyes more than kept pace with them. "Then she has come back."

Sir Claude watched the lady. "It's much more likely she never went!"

"It's mamma!" the child said with decision.

They had stood still, but Sir Claude had made the most of his opportunity, and it happened that just at this moment, at the end of the vista, the others halted and, still showing only their backs, seemed to stay talking. "Right you are, my duck!" he ex- claimed at last. "It's my own sweet wife!"

He had spoken with a laugh, but he had changed colour, and Maisie quickly looked away from him. "Then who is it with her?"

"Blest if I know!" said Sir Claude.

"Is it Mr. Perriam?"

"Oh dear no--Perriam's smashed."

"Smashed?"

"Exposed--in the City. But there are quantities of others!" Sir Claude smiled.

Maisie appeared to count them; she studied the gentleman's back. "Then is this Lord Eric?"

For a moment her companion made no answer, and when she turned her eyes again to him he was looking at her, she thought, rather queerly. "What do you know about Lord Eric?"

She tried innocently to be odd in return. "Oh I know more than you think! Is it Lord Eric?" she repeated.

"It maybe. Blest if I care!"

Their friends had slightly separated and now, as Sir Claude spoke, suddenly faced round, showing all the splendour of her ladyship and all the mystery of her comrade. Maisie held her breath. "They're coming!"

"Let them come." And Sir Claude, pulling out his cigarettes, began to strike a light.

"We shall meet them!"

"No. They'll meet US."

Maisie stood her ground. "They see us. Just look."

Sir Claude threw away his match. "Come straight on." The others, in the return, evidently startled, had half-paused again, keeping well apart. "She's horribly surprised and wants to slope," he continued. "But it's too late."

Maisie advanced beside him, making out even across the interval that her ladyship was ill at ease. "Then what will she do?"

Sir Claude puffed his cigarette. "She's quickly thinking." He appeared to enjoy it.

Ida had wavered but an instant; her companion clearly gave her moral support. Maisie thought he somehow looked brave, and he had no likeness whatever to Mr. Perriam. His face, thin and rather sharp, was smooth, and it was not till they came nearer that she saw he had a remarkably fair little moustache. She could already see that his eyes were of the lightest blue. He was far nicer than Mr. Perriam. Mamma looked terrible from afar, but even under her guns the child's curiosity flickered and she appealed again to Sir Claude. "Is it--IS it Lord Eric?"

Sir Claude smoked composedly enough. "I think it's the Count."


What Maisie Knew - 20/53

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